Trip to Jerusalem Part 3
Today I went to the Kotel. Kotel means wall, and it is called in Hebrew the Western Wall and also in English the Wailing Wall. The place that is truly holy to Jews is on the Temple Mount, but it is fortuitous that the rabbis, meaning the serious black clad rabbis, as in those who value Jewish law and the Jewish temple, consider the area of the Temple to be too holy for us Jews in our current impure state and thus forbid entrance to the Temple Mount itself.
(There is nothing theoretical about this impurity, it is legal impurity: all Jews are considered to be impure as in having had by one or two or three degrees of separation contact with the dead and thus cannot go on the Temple Mount until they have been purified with the ashes of the red heifer to undo their impurity. Such ashes are not available so we are all impure.) And thus since Jews cannot go to the place of the temple, they have the wall as a type of substitute place, a place to pray to God, close to the temple.
I usually don’t think about the destruction of the Palestinian neighborhood that was involved in the establishment of the Kotel as the meeting place for the Jews near the Temple Mount, but since I am writing this here, I mention it.
I have been in Jerusalem a little over 11 days so far this trip and it is unusual for me not to visit the Kotel in my first week here. They say that there are no atheists in the foxhole and similarly I have prayed for the health of a close relative at the Kotel about 16 years ago, so I cannot deny the emotional belief in a God who listens to prayer, although logically my prayers are no more worthy than the hundreds of millions of prayers of people in need whose prayers have been ignored.
I wore a black baseball cap (with “New York City” in white embroidered on it instead of a team logo) , my usual headgear when I visit religious relatives, except on the Sabbath when a baseball cap looks messy and I don a kipa. The kotel when I arrived at about 5:30 in the evening was mostly still in the sunlight, but there was a shadow furthest to the left (north) and I dragged a lectern to the shaded area and found a Psalms and found a few chapters that matched my mood. In previous years I would also get close to the wall itself for a touch. The stones have been worn down by the touch of many hands and there is sentimental value in the tactile experience of touching its stones smoothed by millions of hands, but I skipped that part this visit.
When I left my parent a half an hour earlier I had not planned a visit, but adventures even of a limited sort often involve spur of the moment decisions. (Back in 1990 I visited the Church of the Holy Sephulcer, which left me in an agitated state and then visited the mosques, forbidden to impure Jews as I explained, but though raised with strict rules I bend the rules on a regular basis. It was December of 89 or January of 90 and I paid a Palestinian free lance tour guide a few shekels (probably the equivalent of twenty bucks when he was expecting only ten) and he showed me the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque and when I asked him if he could find for me someone who was versed in Islam so I could talk, he found an imam who was an Islamic missionary in South Africa, who was visiting his hometown (al Quds) and the imam took me by car with two others to Shuafat, where though I was quite scared for my safety, I ate a meal and had a discussion before I was taken back to the West of Jerusalem by one of my hosts. This is just an example where an agitated state led to adventure and though the stakes and the adventure were much smaller this time, it was that same agitated frame of mind that I was experiencing today, when I decided to get off the train at the Damascus Gate and visit the Wall.
I do not recall the pill box with the Israeli soldiers at the entrance to the Damascus Gate, I’m sure that Google would tell me precisely when those combat olive green pill boxes were added for security. There were many tourists: half tourists and half Palestinians, with a smattering of Orthodox Jews also present. It is exotic. (Back in 72 my first time in the Old City, they used to have butcher shops with flanks of slaughtered cows hanging in the market place street that led from the Jaffa Gate to the Kotel.) It has been much cleaner than that for over 40 years now, but still it is different and I feel that I am on foreign turf (best behavior) when I enter through the Damascus Gate. (I have a two weeks’ growth of beard and on occasions like this I wonder how Jewish my face is and whether the Palestinian store owners or the Palestinian kids can recognize me as a Jew.) At one point I was following a teacher leading a class of fifth grade girls and they turned off and headed to the mosque and I felt tempted to follow them, but my adventurous spirit was too limited for that kind of a breakthrough for today and so I did not follow them and instead headed towards the security check for the approach to the Kotel instead.
After my short Kotel visit, I climbed the stairs to the Rova, the Jewish Quarter. The stairs are under construction and so the path was not quite the usual path and then I found the way to the Plaza inside the Jewish Quarter. I found a place in the shade and worked on a Soduku. which has a calming effect on me. Suddenly i was surrounded by a tour group of Israeli women and fifth grade girls and the leader of the group launched a spiel about the Temple and the destruction of the Temple and a skit of a confrontation between the troop leader and a fictional prophetess regarding the future of the Temple and I thought, “Oh, no. My thoughts are focused on the moment of prayer and contemplation and these thoughts are about rebuilding the temple and reclaiming history. Totally clashing priorities.” So I walked away and left the Jewish Quarter and found my way to the Jaffa Gate and then to the alleyway that parallels the wall of the old city and leads to the western part of jerusalem.